When working alone or with cooking assistance only on the day of the event, I find it most manageable to spread out the work of preparing a feast over a three day period. Preparing an opulent feast usually takes me a long afternoon of shopping and organizing the bhoga. Some dishes can be prepared a day or two in advance, while other must go straight from the fire to the offering plate in order to be at their finest.
In Bhagavad-gita, Srila Prabhupada talks about foods in the modes of goodness, passion and ignorance. He says, “Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed and unclean, is food liked by people in the mode of ignorance.” (BG 17:8) Needless to say, foods should never be cooked (or left uncooked), and allowed to sit unprotected in the heat, light or air. In their cookbooks, both Yamuna devi and Kurma das give good instructions on which preparations do well if made ahead, and which are best cooked and immediately served. If you plan your menu carefully, you can combine menu items across a range of staging times, making it much more manageable to handle the feast on your on.
For example, we have a number of favorite dishes – particularly complicated sweets – that take quite a few hours to make, but really improve in flavor and texture when allowed to sit in the fridge for a day or two. I can make these ahead, knowing they’ll be perfect when it’s time to offer them to Krsna. Because these sweets are so opulent, and their composition makes them amenable to preparing well ahead, there’s no question of losing quality or goodness in exchange for convenience. Such dishes are the exception to the rule, however, and most preps do best when made no more than one day in advance.
On day three, I do the majority of shopping, buying everything except for the fruits and vegetables that need to be super-fresh. These I purchase on the morning of the feast event. Also on day three, I make the ghee and whatever chenna will be required for various preps. Chenna keeps well if kept well sealed in the fridge, but be sure to press it to the desired consistency immediately after making.
Using the feast menu spreadsheet, I work up a three day to-do list. There are often quite a number of tasks I can get out of the way on day three, like organizing the serving utensils and cooking gear, shelling and roasting nuts, and grinding some of the spices. I find it helpful to plan advance tasks by looking at both the menu and the ingredients list, which reminds me of the many small steps that need doing, some of which I can do a few days ahead.
On day two, I often make the chutnies and raitas. Some do better than others made a day head, but I find that most do very well, and some actually improve over a day. For some reason, chutneys containing fresh jalapenos don't seem to sit well overnight, but the peppers can be added at the last moment.
When possible, I make sauces ahead, and blend ingredients for stuffed vegetables that will be baked or fried. For many recipes like sabjis, fry batters and savouries, I combine all the spices and dry ingredients ahead, and seal them tightly in labeled bags or containers. It really speeds things up on the ‘big day’ if I can toss a blend of spices right into the ghee for a quick chaunk.
On the day of the feast, I spend the morning doing all possible advance prep for sabjis or other dishes. This usually means peeling and chopping, sautéing, etc. Next, we focus on the savouries and frieds, which usually take a fair bit of time and focus. I try to get the first few batches assembled and ready then, while my husband starts the frying, I assemble the remaining savories and keep streaming them in his direction. For a typical evening feast, we like to get all the frying out of the way by early afternoon. I prefer not to have a kitchen full of people when there's hot oil on the stove because it's so easy for an accident to happen. I also like to have time to air out the heavy frying smell and clean-up the oil spatter on the stove and floor well in advance of the final, big cooking endeavor. I find that while most savouries and frieds don’t do well when made a day ahead, they do sit well for a number of hours, and re-heat nicely at the last moment.
By the time the frying is done, the kitchen is usually mellowed out enough so that when helpers arrive, the last items to be prepared are simple and the ingredients are all at the ready. Friends and devotees can happily cook together without rushing or anxiety, enjoying Krsna katha and good association, and together turning out a sumptuous feast fit for the Lord. Jai!